No bad thing to ban Bayadère

No bad thing to ban Bayadère

Comment Of The Day

norman lebrecht

April 29, 2021

Our Comment of the Day from ‘Zenreader’:

As someone who was really excited to watch the Bolshoi production of La Bayadere on Blu-Ray for the first time, I was unable to finish watching when I was blindsided by the young girls dancing in black and brown face. I know Russia does not have the same history of black/brown face, but seeing people wear dark skin as a costume and dance in jerky ways that appear mocking was deeply shocking and uncomfortable and made me feel inhuman to the people who made it on a purely artistic level. I realize I’m opening myself up for ridicule here, but I don’t think making modifications to existing art to make it more fitting of modern sensibilities necessarily ruins that art, it just makes it different. Art is constantly changing and ballet should change with it. It doesn’t have to be all at once, and even though I myself couldn’t finish watching it (or at least this production in particular), I would hate to see La Bayadere disappear altogether. But I also can’t say people who feel it is disrespectful to their culture are completely in the wrong either. People conflating modern inventions and innovations with cultural customs that have deep personal and societal meanings are completely missing the point.

This was the press release that provoked the original furore:

Hindus are critical of Opéra national de Paris (France) for hosting during its 2020-21 season ballet “La Bayadère”, which they feel seriously trivializes Eastern religious and other traditions. 

Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA) today, said that taxpayer-funded Opéra national de Paris should not be in the business of callously promoting appropriation of traditions, elements and concepts of “others”; and ridiculing entire communities. 

Zed, who is President of Universal Society of Hinduism, indicated that this deeply problematic ballet was just a blatant belittling of a rich civilization and exhibited 19th-century orientalist attitudes.  

Ballet companies should show some maturity before selecting a ballet like “La Bayadère” (The Temple Dancer) displaying Western caricaturing of Eastern heritage and abetting ethnic stereotyping, Rajan Zed noted. 

It was highly irresponsible for a prestigious national organization to choose such a ballet which had been blamed for patronizing flawed mishmash of orientalist stereotypes, dehumanizing cultural portrayal and misrepresentation, offensive and degrading elements, needless appropriation of cultural motifs, essentialism, shallow exoticism, caricaturing, etc. Opéra national de Paris, whose history goes back to 1669, could do better than this to serve the multi-cultural audiences, Zed stated. 

Rajan Zed also urged Opéra national de Paris board and management to re-evaluate its systems and procedures and send their executives for cultural sensitivity training so that such an inappropriate stuff did not slip through in the future.  

Moreover, corporate sponsors like Rolex (Swiss luxury watches), which claims of making “unique and lasting contribution to global culture”, should re-think before sponsoring such ballets, Zed added.  

Like many others, Hindus also consider ballet as one of the revered art forms which offers richness and depth. But we are well into 21st century now, and outdated “La Bayadère”, which was first presented in St. Petersburg (Russia) in 1877, is long overdue for permanent retirement from the world stage; Rajan Zed points out. 

“La Bayadère”, scheduled from December 24, 2020 to January 02, 2021 in Opéra Bastille (Paris); claims to be a “a flamboyant spectacle” “in an imaginary India complete with elephants, tigers and palanquins”. Tickets of this two hours 50 minutes ballet in three acts and two intervals, cost up to 165 €. 


  • John Borstlap says:

    Blackface dancers mocking ‘African dance movements’ is just plain embarrassing and can easily be amended in the choreography without the need to clean the faces. Such a minor correction of an idiotic historical misconception should not be a reason to ‘cancel’ the ballet altogether.

    In opera, Regietheater entirely changes plot, meaning, staging etc. which is as idiotic. But respectful productions also correct little things which obviously were not well-thought-through, like the white dove which was supposed to come down at the end of Parsifal to hover above the ‘hero’s’ head, a clearly written instruction in the score which even the most respectful production respectfully ignores.

  • V.Lind says:

    The press release picks on Paris, but this ballet is in the rep of a number of other companies. I have seen the Kirov do it. Zenreader has seen a Bolshoi film of it. I am sure other companies occasionally do it, though some I know only perform The Kingdom of the Shades (nice outing for the corps), largely because it is so long and expensive to mount properly. Paris may be the most recent, but that’s no reason to pick on it.

    Zenreader’s queasy reaction is her ow affair. I don’t ridicule it; I merely disagree with it. I haven’t seen the Bolshoi’s film makeup, but the Kirov, live, merely suggested Indian characters, if memory serves. Anyway, I have NO problem with stage makeup. It’s part of pretending, which is what staged performance is.

  • Ballet fan says:

    If to search carefully, one can find many ballets, operas, paintings, sculptures etc. that might offend somebody. For example, Le Sacre du printemps ridicules whites. Shall it be eliminated completely then? And all history along with it?

    • Marfisa says:

      How does The Rite of Spring ridicule whites? Stravinsky was inspired by the folklore and pagan past of his own country, Russia.

  • Sharon says:

    In the same way where it could be said that ballets such as “La Bayadere” distort and trivialize Hinduism and Indian culture, it could be said that muvh of ballet is now culturally obsolete because it largely trivializes dancers as people by objectifying bodies, especially women’s bodies, and requires dancers to distort themselves and injure the musculature in very unnatural (but considered more sexy) poses. Modern dance in the early nineteenth century was Isadora Duncan’s answer to “unnatural”

    I remember reading a book written, I believe, in the 1960s titled “The Dancer as an Aesthetic Object”, a book of the philosophy of art where the author actually approved of turning people into aesthetic objects.

    One could make a strong case that ballet was a way in the nineteenth century to legitimize pornography; nowhere else in Western societies would it have been respectable, or even legally possible, for a woman to show her full legs and thighs.

    I myself have a problem with a lot of Neo Classical Ballet where dancers, rather than tell a story or express an emotion, just turn themselves into objectified moving pretty pictures; the Ballanchine ballet “Jewels” is a textbook example of this but there are hundreds of others.

  • RW2013 says:

    Having endured a performance last year I can honestly say that the music (and orchestration) is so thin that not even the Staatskapelle Berlin could provide it with redemption.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    It’s certainly a vexed issue, from literature (the matter of portraying Shakespeare’s Othello, or Shylock, to Mark Twain’s use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn, etc.) through opera (consider Monostatos in The Magic Flute, though mitigated when Papageno muses that there are black birds, so why shouldn’t there be black people too — not to mention Verdi’s Otello), to choral-orchestral works like Felicien David’s ‘Le Desert’, which Berlioz regarded highly, to the ensuing river of orientalism in French music (and other music, including the Austro-Russian La Bayadere).

    I doubt that there’s a one-size-fits-all solution, but educating the public about historical perspective and changing values is part of the various solutions, or approaches.

  • Jack says:

    Let me see if I understand. 150 years after it debuted, someone woke up one morning and decided it was offensive?